Death and Dying
The Mennonite understanding of death and dying and attitudes and response to these final life experiences have been influenced by Mennonite faith and the surrounding society.
The Anabaptists were doubtless greatly influenced in this regard by the terrible persecutions and deaths as described by Thieleman von Braght in his Martyrs Mirror, first published in 1660. Here he tells of the persecution and tragic death of more than 4,000 Christians, beginning with Christ's death. Many of these were during the apostolic period, some in each century until the Reformation period and more in the 16th and 17th centuries, when there were great slaughters of human life. As the Protestant churches became more accepted by society in Europe and North America, differences in practices related to death diminished in relation to the culture generally. For Christians there was always the emphasis on the resurrection and future life.
Some practices among Mennonites include shrouds, sometimes white; keeping caskets outside church buildings; and conducting a wake. Until the 20th century, families and the church community usually took care of everything associated with death. In the latter part of the 19th century there was a perfecting of chemicals and techniques which contributed to the more general practice of embalming. This contributed to the beginning of the modern undertaking profession. First these were sidelines to other businesses, such as livery stables, furniture stores, or barber shops. The writer personally remembers at least three furniture store/undertaking establishments and a barbershop/undertaking establishment by Mr. Byers in Woodbury, Pa.
Mennonites seem to be generally unaware of the radical change in their attitude toward death as a result of changing practices. Since the mid-20th century many deaths occur in hospitals or nursing homes instead of at home in the presence of family; the body is taken to a funeral home by employees, instead of family and friends washing, dressing, and placing it in a homemade coffin; viewing of the body in business establishments has replaced a wake held in the home; the body is conveyed to funeral services and grave site by a luxurious, chauffeured vehicle instead of family-provided vehicle; the grave is opened and closed commercially instead of by friends. (See also Burial customs)
The former practices helped to provide familiarity with death and had a therapeutic benefit. Now there is a certain fear or revulsion associated with a dead body. Touching or handling it is to be avoided. Death has become a "hush, hush" subject, to be mentioned or talked of only when it has occurred in a family or community.
These attitudes have begun to change since the 1960s. By the 1980s death was spoken of more freely. Literature on the subject is appearing. More families and groups in the Mennonite churches are taking charge of planning their funerals. Some of them are modest modifications of the conventional patterns and some are more radical. There is a recognition that most of the 20-30 specific services which the modern undertaker is prepared to render could well be the opportunity and responsibility of the Christian family and church.
Churches are beginning to consider this issue. In May 1975 the Mennonite Medical Association sponsored a two-day consultation on "Death and Dying" in Chicago, in which seven papers were presented and discussed. The Virginia Mennonite Conference (MC) under the direction of one of its regular committees and a special committee, had two series of papers prepared.
In 1978, the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries (MC) assumed responsibility for giving leadership in the Mennonite Church (MC) to this growing concern. They named a committee which, among other things, planned several consultations, produced two editions (1980 and 1986) of a 160-page study manual, and gave assistance to area workshops, studies, and preparation of articles.
The Christian death has been called the third death/birth experience. The first death/birth is when the infant leaves the comfort, security, and provisions of the mother's womb for a new and unknown world. The second death/birth is when one leaves (dies to) the known world where the individual has "enjoyed the pleasures of sin" and has been born again into the church, the Body of Christ. Again, one is leaving the known and the comfortable for the unknown. The third death/birth means dying to what one has known of one's Christian life on earth and again born into a life which will be far beyond our human comprehension here and now.
For the Christian, death is life's greatest paradox! Christians are told to "rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep" (Romans 12:15, KJV). Usually this refers to two totally separate and different occasions; but, in the death of a Christian, these two radically different emotional experiences are at one and the same time, same place, same circumstance, with the same people involved. on the one hand, there is the pain, suffering, and sorrow due to the separation from a loved one. Being of this earth, this is natural. Being a Christian does not change it greatly. On the other hand, death is a time of victory, joy, gladness, and celebration with and for the saint who has gone Home. Since there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, what a time of celebration there must be when a saint "goes marching in"! The big question is: What is the appropriate Christian attitude toward and response to such an apparently conflicting situation? What a paradox!
Gerber, Samuel. Learning to Die. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1984.
Graham, Billy. Facing Death and the After Life. Waco Tex.: Word Books, 1987.
Klopfenstein, Janette. My Walk with Grief. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1987.
Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
Richards, Larry and Paul Johnson. Death and the Caring Community. Multnomah Press, 1980.
Schmitt, Abraham. Dialogue with Death. Waco: Word Books, 1976.
Simons, Paul D. Birth and Death: Bioethical Decision-making. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983.
Zora, Victor and Rosemary Zora. A Way to Die. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
MLA style: Metzler, A.J. "Death and Dying." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D358ME.html.
APA style: Metzler, A.J. (1989). Death and Dying. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D358ME.html.